I feel that I have been very fortunate in my life thus far. I have been fortunate enough to have a good home, good friends, and a good family. But forget all of that for now, because for the second time in my life I get to witness a monkey birthing season.
That’s right folks, it’s Baby Season!!!!!! (Crowd cheers, applause, fanfare, etc.)
There are a few constants in any baby season. First there is the babies, and second is the oohing and ahhhing over the babies. As such, I am besieged daily by the cries of my coworkers as they succumb to violent “cute attacks”, “adorable strokes”, or “awwww seizures” upon seeing the freshly born. I for my part, find the new earthlings to be utterly delightful and in some ways awe inspiring, but it the new mothers and not their fluffy little bundles that have captured my fascination.
For months now I have watched as many of the female macaques in my group balloon to preposterous size. One female by the name of 0I6 grew so round that I introduced her to my research assistant, Emma, as Bowling Ball. It was she that I thought would be the first to pop out a kid. But I was mistaken. Instead the first to give birth this year was a sub-adult female named 9N1. This years infant is her first offspring and if you watch her for any amount of time, that becomes painfully obvious. She is however, not alone in her new inept maternal status.There is also a female named 4C1 who gave birth for the first time this year, and is struggling to come to grips with her new charge.
There is one aspect of motherhood in particular that both moms are botching. Baby macaques, like many monkey species, ride on their mothers’ stomachs for most of their first weeks of life. They grip on with their surprisingly strong little hands and sip on refreshing breast milk all day long. This arrangement also frees up mom to move about mostly unencumbered, with all her limbs free. In 9N1’s case she might be a bit too free. There have been multiple occasions on which I have seen her bend down to drink water and unceremoniously dunk her baby’s head beneath the surface, holding it under with her mass until she has satisfied her thirst. On the other hand, 4C1 can’t seem to get her infant to grip her chest. In fact her infant seems quite happy to grip any other part of her body. Often I will see her foraging with her infant hanging off her back, her side, or her leg. On one hilarious occasion I saw 4C1 fleeing from a conflict whilst swatting at her infant who was clamped to her head, face hugger style.
The antics of these mothers pair nicely with the antics of their infants. Both have found themselves in a new world of experiences and both are exploring their new roles with trepidation. There is one further parallel to the tale of these new mothers and infants, and I have alluded to it before in this piece and the last: my new experience of having a research assistant.
I think that part of my interest in the tribulations of these first time moms is a sense of empathy. I too have accidentally inundated my new charge, and I often struggle to know just where to put her. Like 9N1 and 4C1 I am adept at working on my own and have been doing so for many years. I know how to motivate myself, how I best learn, and what my limits are. Fieldwork is something I am familiar with and love. But now like the monkeys I have to nurture someone new; someone without the knowledge and experience I have. Someone who doesn’t know that you should never turn tail and run if a monkey aggresses you, or if you hear leaves rustling above you, don’t look up with your mouth open. In this new role I must walk a balance between friend and taskmaster: rebuking without rudeness, and familiarizing without fraternizing. I must divulge badly needed knowledge in a form most tasteful to
an unknown palate, while waiting patiently on developing skills on which my future depends.
I’ll be keeping an eye on the new moms in the coming weeks, to see if they are fairing any better with their charges. Thus far it’s going pretty well. No one has died, infant or assistant. And they are becoming more capable every day, despite the blunders of their teachers. Fingers crossed we all make it to October in one piece.